Four New Mysteries in the Obamacare Enrollment Numbers
Policy + Politics

Four New Mysteries in the Obamacare Enrollment Numbers

REUTERS/John Gress

The White House is heralding the news that 2.2 million people have signed up through state and federal health care exchanges as evidence that Obamacare, which started as a disaster, is finally working.

On Monday Health and Human Service Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said that December alone accounted for 1.8 million new enrollees. In December, seven times more people enrolled through the federal exchange, and adults aged 18 to 34 signed up at eight times the rate they did in the first two moths of the law. 

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“Americans are finding quality affordable coverage in the Marketplace, and best of all, because coverage began on New Year’s Day, the promise and hope of the Affordable Care Act is now a reality,” Sebelius said in a statement announcing the enrollment figures. “Our outreach efforts have ramped up, so whether it’s through public service announcements, events, our champions or other means, we are doing all we can to find, inform and enroll those who can benefit from the Marketplace.”

But the numbers HHS released are misleading, and only tell part of the story. The White House is still lagging to meet self-imposed enrollment targets. And young people are not signing up at the pace the White House needs, no matter how CMS claims that they’re on track to meet their goals.

Now that we know the December data, here are four mysteries in the Obamacare numbers.

Young people are signing up at a faster pace, but it’s still not at a level that can sustain the law. Good news for the White House is more young invincibles are signing up. The bad news is that they don’t make up a big enough percentage of enrollees to sustain the law.  

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According to HHS’s figures, only 24 percent of the 2.2 million enrollees are 18 to 34. The White House has said in the past that roughly 40 percent of all enrollees must come from that demographic in order to offset costs from older, less healthy people. So President Obama needs to get more to sign up by the end of March to prevent a spike in premiums. 

It doesn’t matter how many people sign up. It matters how many people pay their premium. The news that 2.2 million people have selected a plan is welcome by the White House. But remember, it’s not just selecting a plan that matters; the enrollee actually has to pay the insurance company a premium to be counted as officially enrolled. 

A Wall Street Journal report on Monday indicated that in 17 states, 67 percent of people who selected a plan have paid for it. If this percentage holds across the country, the number of people who are actually insured by Obamacare plans drops to 1.5 million. And even if it doesn’t, it’s unclear how many people have actually paid for their plan.

The White House is still behind meeting its goal of 7 million by the end of March. The White House refuses to back down from its 7 million enrollee by the end of March target. Half way through the open enrollment period, it still hasn’t met 50 percent of this goal. The good news is that the pace that people are signing up for health coverage is going up. Getting an additional five million people to sign up in the next three months is quite a challenge.

Increased enrollment means the federal and state exchanges are improving, but the Web site has failed when the number of users increases. The federal exchanges are working much better than they did in October, when they simply did not work. But, somewhat ironically, an increase in users could be trouble for the site. That’s because many of the early problems on the site were caused by a surge in users. It remains to be seen whether all of those problems have been resolved. The only way to determine that is to have more users visit.

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